The Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Translated by Fr Thomas Duncan
From Migne’s Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 65



When the holy Abba Anthony was sitting in the desert, he fell into acedia and very many darkening thoughts. He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved, but the thoughts won’t allow me; what shall I do in my affliction? How will I be saved?” And a little while later, when he got up to go outside, Anthony saw someone like himself, sitting down and working, and then standing up from work and offering prayers, and again sitting down and weaving rope, then again standing up to pray. It was an angel of the Lord, sent for the correction and assurance of Anthony. He heard the angel saying, “do this and you will be saved.” He got much joy and courage from hearing this, and by doing this he was saved.

The same Abba Anthony, while gazing intently at the depth of God’s judgements, asked, “Lord, how is it that some die young while some are exceedingly old? And wherefore do some have to toil while others are rich? And how come the unrighteous are rich while the righteous must toil?” There came a voice to him saying, “Anthony, attend to yourself. For these things are the judgements of God and are not profitable for you to know.

Someone questioned Abba Anthony, saying, “what must one observe that he might be well pleasing to God?” The old man responded, saying, “keep that which I enjoin on you: wherever you go, hold God before your eyes always; and whatever you do, hold to the testimony of the Holy Scriptures; and in whichever place you settle, do not be hasty to move. Observe these three things and you shall be saved.”

Abba Anthony said to Abba Poeman, “this is the great work of man: that he should blame himself and throw himself before God and expect temptation until the last breath.”

He said, “no one untempted is able to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” He went on, “for without temptations, no one is saved.”

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “what shall I do?” The old man said to him, “do not have confidence in your righteousness, do not regret upon past matters, and be master over your tongue and belly.”

Abba Anthony said, “I saw all the snares of the enemy being spread out upon the earth. And groaning, I said, ‘what can get past these things?’ And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘humility’.”  

Again, he said, “there are some who are wearing out their own bodies in asceticism, but without having discernment, and have become far from God.”

Again, he said, “from the neighbour is life and death. For if we should gain a brother, we are gaining God, but if we should cause a brother to stumble, we are sinning against Christ.”

Again, he said, “just as fish die when they remain too long out of water, in the same way do monks, when they loiter outside the cell, or tarry in worldly things, let go of the tension of interior stillness. It is necessary, therefore, just like fish going into the sea, for us to hurry on into the cell lest ever we linger outside and be made to forget custody of the interior.”

Again, he said, “the one who sits in the desert and keeps silence is free from three battles:  hearing, speech, and seeing. He has only one, that of sexual immorality.” 

Some brothers came over to Abba Anthony to report to him the apparitions they saw, and to learn from him whether they be genuine, or from the demons. Now, they had a donkey, but it died on the way. So, as they came to the old man, he got in first and asked them, “how did the little donkey die on the way?” They said to him, “from where did you come to know this, Abba?” He said to them, “the demons showed me.” And they said to him, “for this reason we came to question you, lest perhaps we be let astray, for we are seeing apparitions and often they come true.” Thus, the old man fully convinced them from the example of the donkey, that they were from the demons.

Someone was hunting wild animals in the desert, and he saw Abba Anthony joking with the brothers. Wanting to convince him that one should meet the brothers on their level, the old man said to him, “put an arrow into your bow and stretch it.” And he did so. He said to him, “stretch it again.” And he stretched it. Again, he insisted, “stretch it.” The hunter said to him, “if I stretch it beyond measure, the bow will break.” The old man said to him, “so too with the work of God; if we stretch the brothers beyond their limit, they will quickly break to pieces. Therefore, it is necessary to come down to meet the brothers on their level.” The hunter was pierced upon hearing these things and went away greatly helped by the old man. The brothers too went away to their place edified.

Abba Anthony heard about a young monk who performed a miracle on the road: When he had seen some old men travelling and exhausted on the road, he commanded wild asses to come and carry the old men until they should reach Anthony. Then the old men reported these things to Anthony. He said to them, “this monk is like a ship full of good things, but I do not know if he will arrive at the harbour.” After some time, Abba Anthony suddenly began to weep and tear at his hair and wail. His disciples said to him, “why are you crying, Abba?” And the old man said, “a great pillar of the Church just fell (he was speaking about the young monk). But go to him”, he said, “and see what has happened.” So the disciples departed and found the monk sitting on a matt, lamenting the sin which he committed. Seeing the disciples of the old man, he said, “speak to the old man that he might plead with God to grant me only ten days, and I hope to give a defence.” But within five days he met his end. 

A monk was commended by the brothers to Abba Anthony. So, when he approached him, he tested whether he could bear dishonour. And finding that he could not bear it, he said to him, “you are like a village adorned on the outside but plundered by brigands on the inside.” 

A brother said to Abba Anthony, “pray for me.” The old man said to him, “Neither shall I have mercy on you, nor shall God, unless you yourself strive earnestly and entreat God.”

One day some old men came down to Abba Anthony, and Abba Joseph was with them. Wanting to test them, the old man put forward a saying from the Scriptures and began to question the youngest ones what this saying meant. And each one answered according to his own ability. To each the old man said, “you are not getting it.” After all of them, he said to Abba Joseph, “you, how do you explain this saying?” He answered, “I do not know.” Then Abba Anthony said, “indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he said, ‘I do not know.’”

Some brothers came down to Abba Anthony from Scetis, and when they were getting into a boat to go to him, they found an old man who also wanted to go there. But the brothers did not know him. And while sitting in the boat they kept speaking about the words of the Fathers, the Scriptures and again about their manual labour. But the old man kept silent. And when they came upon the shore, the old man was found to be going to Abba Anthony too. But as they came towards him, he said to them, “this old man you found is good company.” And he said also to the old man, “you found good brothers with you, Abba.” The old man said, “indeed they are good, but their courtyard has no door so whoever wishes enters the stall and unties the ass.” He said this because they said whatever came into their mouths.

Some brothers came down to Abba Anthony, and they said to him, “tell us a word, how might we be saved?” The old man said to them, “have you heard the Scripture? It holds well enough for you.” But they said, “we wish to hear from you also, Father.” The old man said to them, “the Gospel says: ‘if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him also.” They said to him, “we are not able to do this.” The old man said to them, if you are not able to turn the other also, at least endure the one.” They said to him, “neither can we do this.” The old man said, “if you cannot do this either, do not retaliate.” But they said, “nor can we do this.”  The old man then said to his disciple, “make a little porridge for them, for they are sick. If you can’t do this, and you don’t want that, what shall I do for you? You need prayers.”

A brother renounced the world and distributed his possessions to beggars, but he retained a little bit in account for himself and came near Abba Anthony. And learning this, the old man said to him, “if you wish to become a monk, go into the village, buy some meat and wear it on your naked body, and come here like that.” And when the brother had done so, the dogs and the birds were tearing his body to pieces. When he returned to the old man, he asked whether it had happened as he advised. And when that one showed his lacerated body, Saint Anthony said, “those who renounce the world but want to hold on to property are butchered in this way by the demons who are waging war.”

One day a temptation happened upon a brother in the monastery of Abba Elias. And being chased away, he went from there into the mountain to Abba Anthony. And after the brother dwelt for a time with him, he sent him back into the monastery from which he came. When they saw him, again they chased him away. He returned to Abba Anthony saying, “they do not want to receive me, Father.” Then the old man sent [a message] saying, “a ship was wrecked in the deep sea and lost its cargo, but with toil it was rescued upon the shore. Yet you want to plunge into the sea that which is rescued upon the shore.” Upon hearing that it was Abba Anthony who sent him, they received him immediately.

Abba Anthony said, “I think that the body has a natural movement integral to it, but it does not operate unless the soul is willing– it only signals a passionless movement in the body. There is another movement, from the feeding and comforting of the body with food and drink– from which the heat of the blood stimulates the body to activity. Hence the Apostle said, ‘do not get drunk on wine in which is profligacy’ (Eph 5:18). And again, commanding the disciples in the Gospel, the Lord said, ‘watch lest your hearts be burdened with nausea and drunkenness’ (Lk 21:34). And there is also a certain other movement for those who are contending, arising from the plotting and spiteful jealousy of the demons. It is thus necessary to know that there are three bodily movements: one natural, another from negligent feeding, and the third from demons.”  

Again he said, “God does not permit war upon this generation as he did upon those of old. For know that they are weak and cannot bear it.”

It was revealed to Abba Anthony in the desert, “in the city there is a certain person equal to you, a physician by profession, who gives his surplus to those in need and all day long sings the Trisagion with the angels.

Abba Anthony said, “the time is coming when men will go insane, and when they see someone who is not insane, they will rise against him saying, ‘you are insane,’ because you are not like them.”

Brothers came down to Abba Anthony and quoted to him a passage from Leviticus. Then the old man went out into the desert and Abba Ammonas followed him secretly, knowing his custom. And going a long distance, the old man stood in prayer and cried out in a loud voice, “God, send Moses and teach me this passage!” And there came a voice speaking with him. Therefore Abba Ammonas said, I heard the voice speaking with him, but the power of the word I did not learn.”

Three of the Fathers used to have a custom each year to go and visit blessed Anthony, and two of them would question him about thoughts and the salvation of the soul. But the one always used to remain silent and did not question. And after a long time, Abba Anthony said to him, “behold, you have been coming in this way for such a long time and you never question me.” And he responded to him, saying, “just seeing you satisfies me, Father.”

They used to say that a certain one of the old men asked God to see the Fathers, and he saw them, except for Abba Anthony. Therefore, he said to the one showing him, “where is Abba Anthony?” And he said to him, “any place where God is, there he is.”

A brother in a monastery was falsely accused of sexual immorality, and getting up, he went to Abba Anthony. The brothers from the monastery also came to attend to him and receive him back. And they began to reprove him, “thus you did it.” But he kept saying in defence, “I did not do such a thing.” Now, Abba Paphnutius the Head happened to be there, and he told a parable thus: “I saw a man on the riverbank being cast into the mire up to his knees. But when certain people came to give him a hand, they plunged him up to his neck.” And Abba Anthony said concerning Abba Paphnutius, “behold, a true man, one who is able to heal and save souls.” Then, pierced by the word of the old men, they received a change of mind concerning the brother. And after being encouraged by the Fathers, they took the brother back into the monastery.

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